Peter H. Hunt, who had a triumphant success along with his directorial debut on Broadway, the musical “1776,” which ran for nearly three years and received the Tony Award for greatest musical, died on Sunday at his house in Los Angeles. He was 81.
His spouse, Barbette (Tweed) Hunt, mentioned the trigger was problems of Parkinson’s illness.
Mr. Hunt was additionally well-known in theatrical circles in the Northeast for his lengthy involvement with the Williamstown Theater Festival in Massachusetts, where he was lighting designer on productions as early as the late 1950s and advanced to become artistic director from 1989 to 1995. He also directed for television, including numerous episodes of the family drama “Touched by an Angel,” seen on CBS from 1994 through 2003, and several adaptations of Mark Twain stories.
“1776,” with music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards and a book by Peter Stone about the American colonies’ debate over whether to declare independence, won three Tony Awards in 1969, including a best director statuette for Mr. Hunt. Among the shows it beat out for best musical was “Hair.”
“‘1776’ is a near miracle, a highly skilled entertainment taken from historic fact,” Kevin Kelly wrote in his review in The Boston Globe, “and it is unquestionably one of the most intelligent musicals in the history of the American theater.”
The musical’s characters include towering figures in American history, among them Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. Mr. Hunt said the intent was to humanize them — to show them, as they debated independence, as people with the traits everyone has, including stubbornness.
“It’s the same problem we have in Washington every day,” he told The Winston-Salem Journal in 2002. “How do we get these people to agree on anything? Not a whole lot has changed in 225 years.”
Peter Huls Hunt was born on Dec. 16, 1938, in Pasadena, Calif. His father, George, was an industrial designer, and his mother, Gertrude, was a homemaker.
He graduated from the Hotchkiss School in Connecticut and attended Yale University, receiving a bachelor’s degree there in 1961 and a master’s degree at its School of Drama in 1963.
Mr. Hunt was a well-regarded lighting designer early in his career, working not only at Williamstown but also on Broadway. His first four Broadway credits were as lighting designer, including on a 1966 revival of “Annie Get Your Gun” that starred Ethel Merman as Annie Oakley, reprising a role she had first played 20 years earlier.
At first Mr. Hunt only dabbled in directing. He directed his own version of “Annie Get Your Gun” at Williamstown in 1966, and a “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” there in 1968 with a cast that included Ken Howard, who would go on to play Jefferson in “1776.” According to a 2016 article on Broadway World, the theater website, one of his directorial side projects was his ticket to the “1776” job.
He had directed a workshop production of a musical by his friend Austin Pendleton and several others that Jerome Robbins, the noted choreographer and director, had seen. When the producer Stuart Ostrow, who was developing “1776,” asked Mr. Robbins for ideas on a director, he suggested Mr. Hunt.
The Broadway success of “1776” led to touring productions and, in June 1970, to the somewhat incongruous sight of the show being performed in the Mother Country, at the New Theater in London, by an all-British cast. The opening performance there drew five curtain calls.
The Broadway cast was asked to perform the show at the White House for President Richard M. Nixon, but with some cuts, including the song “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men,” sung by conservative politicians who want to steer the country “forever to the right.”
The cast and producers declined to censor the show, and the demand was dropped; the full version was performed at the White House in early 1970. But in 1972, when Mr. Hunt directed a film version of the musical, Jack L. Warner, the film’s producer and a friend of Nixon (who was then running for re-election), cut the song in postproduction. Mr. Hunt, learning of the excision after the fact, was not happy.
“I asked him, ‘Jack, how could you do this?’” Mr. Hunt told The Los Angeles Times in 2001. “And he said, ‘With a pair of scissors.’”
The cut material was restored in later DVD releases.
The film of “1776” led to directing assignments for television. In the 1970s Mr. Hunt directed episodes of “Adam’s Rib,” “Ellery Queen” and other shows. In the 1980s his credits included “Life on the Mississippi,” a 1980 adaptation of the Twain story for PBS’s “Great Performances” series, as well as a very different water-related effort, the premiere episode of “Baywatch” in 1989.
Mr. Hunt also directed TV adaptations of Twain’s Huckleberry Finn saga and “The Innocents Abroad.” In 1993 he gave himself a cameo as a parole officer in “Sworn to Vengeance,” a TV movie he directed starring Robert Conrad.
Mr. Hunt continued to work in the theater as well, directing at Williamstown, in regional theaters and, five more times, on Broadway. His most recent Broadway credit, in 1997, was “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” which went on to a long run, although Robert Longbottom was brought in to rework the production midway through.
In addition to his wife, whom he married in 1972, Mr. Hunt is survived by a brother, George; a son, Max; two daughters, Daisy Hunt and Amy Hunt; and four granddaughters.
In the 2001 Los Angeles Times interview, Mr. Hunt recalled that after the kerfuffle over “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men,” the players gave that number a particular charge when delivering it at the White House.
“Let’s just say the cast performed with additional verve,” he said. “I was sitting right next to Nixon, and even I was getting nervous.”